Radio Row

 

 

The most intriguing stories are often told by the most unremarkable characters. It isn't always the dazzling or the flamboyant that has the most to say, but the mundane.

 

In Downtown Manhattan is a broad sweep of avenue called Park Row. Adjacent is the Mayor's office in City Hall, opposite is the Woolworth building and a block away is the yawning scar of the World Trade Center site, a claustrophobic racket of construction and gawping tourists.

 

Park Row was known as Newspaper Row at the turn of the 20th Century, and was home to The New York Times, The New York Tribune and The New York World (the latter published by Joseph Pulitzer). Two of those titles no longer exist and The New York Times migrated to Longacre Square in Midtown long ago (which became known as Times Square). Today, Park Row plays host to camera stores, corporate coffee houses and no-name delis. But one store caught my eye while walking through City Hall Park, and it'd probably catch your eye, too. Dwarfed by newer buildings either side, there stands a five-storey warehouse, home to a hardware store called Weinstein & Holtzman.

 

"I'm not too sure, but I think we've been trading since the Twenties or Thirties, something like that." After picking my way through the toolbox of products and cluttered shelves spilling with drills, the staff weren't too sure what the story was either. The primary-coloured weather-resistant signs of decades past, such a unique name above the door will draw attention from many a passerby, some may wonder why a hardware store chose the financial heart of the country to set up in. But of course it didn't; when Weinstein & Holtzman was established, downtown Manhattan was a very different place.

 

The business did indeed open to the public in 1920, which means the hardware store is arguably one of the only survivors from the era of New York City's Radio Row, a warehouse district which stretched across lower Manhattan from the 1920s to the 1960s. Then, radio was as fundamental to the lives of New Yorkers as mobile phones and laptops are today. Radio Row was home to dozens to traders selling spare parts and tools to the public; while disposable goods is a commonplace concept today, it was alien then, so people would trawl through bins of valves and tubes and condensers, looking for the parts to fix their sets themselves. Children would often accompany their fathers after school, an adventure to scrounge and scavenge and salvage. Every store, every stall had their radios playing, the noise was deafening, a chaotic, crackling cacophony that echoed through the city.

 

Radio Row didn't just support the city's electronics industry, however. Dozens of independent businesses - restaurants, florists, printers and hardware stores - called the neighbourhood home. At its peak, over 300 stores spilt onto the streets with similar numbers in the floors above. When radio died down, the neighbourhood also moved with the times; TVs and HiFis replaced radios in store windows in the 1950s. It truly was a place like no other.

 

Radio Row tuned out in 1966; over a dozen blocks of warehouses and stores were razed in preparation for the next great chapter in New York's story - the construction of the World Trade Center. But there were bitter rows and fierce court battles; the city used the power of Eminent Domain to legally evict the business owners from their own premises. Those displaced were paid a pittance in compensation; most closed while a few scattered North to Canal Street and beyond. Just one spare parts business to trade on Radio Row is thought to still operate in the city today, a company called Leeds which relocated to Brooklyn.

 

Weinstein & Holtzman is a block to the east of the World Trade Center site, and so survived the destruction of Radio Row. Having spent an afternoon marching up and down the streets adjacent to WTC construction site, it's safe to say there no other stores like it to be found in the neighbourhood; a mundane hardware store that catches the eye, because it was a business that boomed in a city in tune with Radio Row and a long-forgotten melody.

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